The Good Hustle

Today, I was advised to get an editing and proofreading certification from one of the many professional associations available to show potential clients that I am all business and not, as one would otherwise assume, a crank.  Three decades of professional writing, editing-for-hire, and proofreading won’t do it.  The representative who cold-emailed me on social media made it very clear that no matter how good I think I am, no one will take me seriously unless I’m professionally certified.  Luckily, she discovered me in time.

When I asked her if board certification exists for copy editors and proofers, she didn’t respond.  I’m still waiting, but I know the answer.  With a website, a PayPal account, and a fictious business name, you can establish a certification program for anything obscure and unregulated, say, antelope sign language.  You can then offer membership in a professional society based on your courses and the money flows in like sweet milk from heaven when people called to interpret for deaf antelopes feel insecure and go looking for a stamp of approval. 

You’ll pitch your service to the rubes with a great convincer: “Since there are no objective, widely accepted standards for professionalism in antelope sign language, you need our very formal, suitable-for-framing certificate to set you apart from all the dilettante competitors and desperate poseurs trying to steal your business.  You need this.”  I recognized the come-on immediately.  It’s how you sell a diet supplement, a tinfoil orgone collection helmet, a Learn Fluent Inuit in 20 Minutes-a-Day DVD set, or a religion.  You define the subject matter, identify the anxiety it produces, and offer a solution.

New religions always do this, since their subject matter is and must always be vague.  At a science fiction convention in 1948, L. Ron Hubbard is supposed to have said, “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.”  Like most of Hubbard’s material, it seems to have been cribbed from other sources—in this case from a letter written by George Orwell in his multivolume Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters.  But the principle is sound.  Give people something in which they can believe and posit yourself as its source or sole mouthpiece.

Interestingly, the Orwell-Hubbard dates may not match up.  Multiple volumes of Orwell’s collected works were released in the 1960s and, though it’s obvious earlier collections existed, it’s unclear which Orwell resources would have been available to Hubbard in the late 1940s while he was busy doing ceremonial magic in the desert with Jack Parsons and seducing Parsons’ girlfriend.  But we do know that, by 1948, Hubbard had left Parsons and overt occultism behind, well on his way to following through on his million-dollar scheme.

No matter how many conventions Hubbard attended, boats he owned, and storefront e-meter salons he opened, the comment about starting one’s own religion would follow him for the rest of his life and hang over his grave like a feculent mist.  Orwellian cynicism has always seemed perfect for the Church of Scientology.  The organization has appeared, at least since the early ’70s, much more interested in abusive litigation with a side of organized crime than in any sort of enlightenment or spirituality. 

Still, America loves a new religion, the sillier and more coercive the better.  Americans will love it twice as much if the guru requires lavish compensation for his wisdom.  It’s one of the perennial obsessions at the heart of the culture: we’re all looking for Jesus the Businessman, whether he comes as a computer inventor, an online bookseller, or an electric-car spaceship fetishist.  The more he up-sells us and demands to be loved for it, the more we’ll celebrate him.  If he can do this and offer us certificated in-group status, we’ll make him a fixture in our lives.

We want to be saved by someone who shares our values: money, cleverness, exclusivity, salesmanship, and the sado-masochism of the workplace as spiritual praxis.  It’s the reason why, at one point, Oprah commanded the reasoning and libido of 51% of the population, why Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket looks like a giant dildo, and why graffiti near 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, California, used to read “Steve Died for Your Sins.”  He unquestionably did.

But there’s an even deeper reason Hubbard and comparable messiah figures are able to operate until they go out of fashion and either become despised by the crowd that once adored them or go insane: no one has any stable concept of what’s real, including the gurus themselves.  They’re making up the landmarks and mapping the terrain as they go along. 

In fact, the fluidity of unreality, virtual reality, meta-reality, fandom, curated identity, and the floating demimonde of the so-called “knowledge marketplace” underlying these things is so popular and ubiquitous that it has become more convincing than religion ever was.  We’re looking for the next lifehack, supplement, or belief system to stave off our perpetual nervous breakdown because we have no idea what’s going on.  Sign me up.  Get my Level 1 Proofreader’s Certificate and Associate Membership Card.

Black Mirror, Ready Player One, and The Matrix are horrifying mostly due to what they imply about this desperate capacity to turn anything into religion, even down to the most banal and mechanistic corporate sensibilities.  And pandemic lockdown culture has not helped.  When Covid spread across Asia, I was living in Bangkok and noticed a line of herbal supplements being marketed in the malls by a popular Indian guru as protection against the disease.  The layout was very glossy.  There were life-sized cardboard standups of the smiling guru presenting his product at pharmacy endcaps.  People were buying it because they didn’t know what was real.  The guru was defining the problem and offering a solution.  L. Ron Hubbard would have loved Covid-19.

As Mencken put it, “There is nothing in religious ideas, as a class, to lift them above other ideas. On the contrary, they are always dubious and often quite silly. Nor is there any visible intellectual dignity in theologians. Few of them know anything that is worth knowing, and not many of them are even honest.”  But what they offer is certitude and certification in an uncertain, uncertificated world.

What HP Lovecraft Can Teach Us About Programming the Reader

One of the many reasons I love pulp fiction from the early 20th century is that writers like HP Lovecraft can have a line like, “the moon was gleaming vividly over the primeval ruins” (from “The Nameless City“) and actually get away with it. If I wrote something like “gleaming vividly,” my teachers would have beaten me publicly for about an hour. Is it gleaming? Really? Do you have any idea what that is? Vividly? What does “vividly” look like? Do you even know? If you know, how come you’re not showing it in concrete terms? If you don’t know, fuck you, why are you writing it? Oh, the beating would be vast and terrible.

Instead of telling the reader that the moon was gleaming vividly, the harder, more powerful, more evocative and immersive technique, is to show the gleam, show how it’s vivid, show how the ruins might look primeval using descriptive language. That’s the way I was taught. But HPL can get away with lines like this because he’s consistent. And this brings up a deeper lesson about fiction writing: stylistic consistency is more important than any given stylistic choice.

In other words, Lovecraft will write a line like “the moon was gleaming vividly” and we will have to either accept it or shut the book. If we accept it—okay, it’s pulp fiction or it’s HPL or we’re just feeling generous that day—then he hits us with “It poured madly out of the dark door, sighing uncannily as it ruffled the sand and spread about the weird ruins.” Wow. Take it or leave it. Do you want to enjoy the story or not? It’s no fun if you have to complain about the writing. So you take it. And then he’s got you: you’ve decided to let him have as many adverbs and vague adjectives as he wants. You’re going to let him tell you that the sigh was uncanny (what does “uncanny” sound like, eh?) and the ruins were weird (can you think of the last weird ruins you’ve seen?). He has trained you to read and appreciate his fiction rather than trying to meet your expectations.

Some great fiction writers can do both. F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, can write idiosyncratic prose and also ground those weird (!) choices in hard-edged concrete description. People think he learned this through his association with Hemingway, but that’s according to Hem in A Moveable Feast—a great book but likely packed with exaggerations and a few outright lies. Hem might have learned it from Gertrude Stein, but the idiosyncratic flourish we’re talking about is less evident in his work probably because he had such a strong background in news writing. He had to make his prose acceptable to the reader (something that also helped him support himself by selling stories to LIFE and The Saturday Evening Post in an era when you could live that way).

Lovecraft is great in other ways. Still, when I read a passage like this, I have to smile: “In the darkness there flashed before my mind fragments of my cherished treasury of daemoniac lore; sentences from Alhazred the mad Arab, paragraphs from the apocryphal nightmares of Damascius, and infamous lines from the delirious Image du Monde of Gauthier de Metz. I repeated queer extracts, and muttered of Afrasiab and the daemons that floated with him down the Oxus.”

I know HPL sets himself the very difficult task of writing about states of consciousness that have only a tenuous connection to everyday life. So maybe that’s the reason for many of his writerly choices. I do take a certain daemoniac enjoyment of how he disregards certain modern conventions.

Writing out a few sentences by Nakamura to see how they feel.

There was something evil in the glow of the room’s blue lights.  I felt the weight of the man on top of me.  He could no longer move.  His eyes were closed.  I stared long into his face.  I realized that I wanted him.  I wanted the passion he had until a moment ago.  I wanted his shoulders, which were quite muscular for his age, and his naturally tan face.  I got out from under his body, sat in a chair, and lit a cigarette.  I had to wait like this until he fell into a deep sleep.

It was raining outside.

The Kingdom, Fuminori Nakamura (trans. Kalau Almony)